Images courtesy of Getty, Instagram and E!. Collage by Tilden Bissell for W Magazine.
For years, I have been on the seemingly endless journey to remain hydrated. I try to use reusable bottles whenever I can, but like many, I have fallen prey to the convenience of plastic. And of course, I’m a human being who is not immune to the powers of branding.
In my adolescence, I went through phases where I begged my parents to add particular brands of water to the grocery list. They would look at me and roll their eyes like I was just being a dramatic teen because all water tastes the same, right? Wrong. It does not all taste the same. And in fact, different brands of bottled water do not even contain the same properties. Water bottle culture aficionados know this to be true.
About four years ago (I can confirm the date because I have the Google Photo archive history to prove it) I started to feel that familiar craving—a new brand of water called Essentia was rising to prominence, and I needed to try it.
At first, my exposure to Essentia was purely televisual. On episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the mysterious new (to my eyes, anyway) brand was visible in car cupholders, on granite countertops, and neatly stocked in the fridge. Its vaguely European label (is that supposed to be a flag of sorts in the “E” on the bottle?) called to me, and coupled with its pop culture relevancy, it ascended to “must-have” status. Then, I started seeing it everywhere in real life. Once I tried it, there was no turning back. You can really stretch your dollar with a bottle of water that is filled all the way to the brim, and when I realized it was “alkaline” water, though I did not know (or even care to investigate, at the time) what that meant, I kept on sipping.
Now, the year is 2021 and Essentia, in many ways, has positioned itself as a luxury accessory. There are mountains of boxes of Essentia Water at Whole Foods. Sarah Paulson is known to chug a 1.5 liter sized bottle of Essentia when she’s filming on set. The Kardashians still keep bottles of Essentia Water visibly in frame. On social media, it is widely revered as “top-tier.” And Ramy Youssef even recently posed lovingly with a liter of Essentia next to him on a bench. But how did this brand come to be regarded as the holy water dominating the bottled drink universe?
As a culture, it’s fair to say we are nothing short of obsessed with hydration and all the ailments it could possibly cure. Comedians Jacqueline Novak and Kate Berlant addressed this idea during a water-centric episode of their wellness podcast POOG (yes, that’s GOOP spelled backwards). “What if everything that we’re chasing—health, beauty, weaknesses to be energized, to be optimized—is just as simple as being hydrated? All the powders and lotions and rituals and the food—what if it’s all just eclipsed by the importance of hydration? If we’re hydrated are we just cured?” Berlant, a self-described water “super taster” posits in the episode. To find the answer, we must go back as far as the beginning, when water started being bottled and sold on a commercial scale.
Bottled water dates back centuries. Ancient human civilization used vessels to transport water, but it wasn’t until 1621 when the Holy Well spring water located in Malvern, United Kingdom, was tapped, bottled, and sold. In the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonists developed the habit of going to the spa and engaging in hydrotherapy practices (in fact, there is an episode in the newest season of Dickinson that touches on this particular wellness phenomenon). Bottled spring water was particularly popular, as it was believed to hold therapeutic properties.
Fast-forward to the 19th and 20th centuries, when bottled carbonated water as well as mineral water were sold commercially in the U.S., with brands often insisting that it was safer to drink than municipal tap water, which could carry diseases. Water was sold in glass bottles back then, but in the 1970s, plastic became more popular.
By the 1990s there were ostensibly hundreds of different water bottle brands sold around the world. “Magical branding is at work so insanely with bottled water,” Berlant said in POOG. She’s right—there is a hierarchy of sorts, not just among the types of water (source water, purified water, enhanced or functional water, alkaline water), but also among the different water bottle brands. Evian, Poland Spring, Aquafina, Voss, Fiji—each of these brands is part and parcel of an inescapable branding spell, the enchanting nature of marketing which suggests the brand of any accessory you carry—even if it’s a bottle of water—says something about you as a person.
What is it about Essentia in particular that is so beguiling to not only the average consumer, but also to those who fancy themselves as having elevated palates? Although it may feel like this brand emerged from the ether and burst onto the high-concept water scene in recent years, Essentia has actually been around for much longer. Founder and Executive Chairman Ken Uptain founded Essentia Water and started up a headquarters based outside of Seattle in 1998.
Part of Essentia’s allure stems from its “proprietary process,” which “turns water from any source into supercharged, ionized, alkaline water.” Kazumi Mechling, head of corporate communications at Essentia, told me that Uptain was inspired after he sampled ionized water and learned that it was popular in Japan, where ionized water is readily available in hospitals. The proprietary process in question, Mechling explained, involves purification by reverse osmosis, a proprietary mineral blend and running electrical currents through the water that results in a pH of 9.5 or higher.
She also noted that, while executives can’t make health claims about the water, customers told them they could swill Essentia Water during breaks between workouts without the feeling of liquids sloshing around inside their bodies because of how quickly it is absorbed.
Despite its cult status, there are still criticisms of what goes into Essentia Water—some have noticed that “sodium bicarbonate” is listed as an ingredient on the bottle.
As someone who could not give you even a vague estimation of how many Essentia bottles I’ve consumed over the years, it’s distressing to notice that baking soda—something you might not want to consume in large amounts—is a listed ingredient. The brand, however, confirms on their website FAQ page that, “No, we do not use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and calcium chloride to make Essentia Water alkaline.” Those ingredients, it turns out, are part of the company’s “proprietary mineral blend,” and “are only added in trace amounts” for taste and to complement the body’s natural mix. “Our pH of 9.5 or higher is a result of our proprietary ionization process, which removes bitter-tasting, acidic ions and creates our supercharged ionized alkaline water,” Essentia stated.
What keeps customers coming back for more? Is it the authenticity of the brand’s claim that this water could possibly “rehydrate” you in ways no other one can? Is the sorcery of smart branding a contributing factor? “I don’t give a shit about the science,” Novak said of alkaline water in the “Water” episode of POOG. “I’d take tap water and imbue it with my magic rituals and believe and know—because only one singular consciousness is acting upon that water that is pure.”
Mechling told me Essentia didn’t start marketing in a visible way until around 2014. Before that, the brand was almost entirely dependent upon a word-of-mouth strategy, with “early adopters” like athletes and performers seeking out what Mechling called “functional water, water that does more for them” telling one another about Essentia. “It’s crazy, not just with the Kardashians, but the whole entertainment set, there were so many celebrities that just told each other about it,” Mechling said.
Athletes in particular kept coming to Essentia looking to buy in bulk; as a result, the brand decided to position itself as the “overachiever” label and launch an influencer marketing campaign. “Essentia is overachieving. We’re an overachieving culture, our water is overachieving, we go that extra mile. So much about what we do to get our product in the marketplace is about overachieving,” Mechling added. Three years ago, the brand also upgraded the look and feel of the bottle, but kept the original black-and-red color scheme and maintained a vertical logo. (The brand has noticed copycats knocking off the Essentia look, an example of its cultural impact.)
I can’t help but think there is something so totally American about the obsession with hydration—a cure-all that can be achieved by consuming a bottle of water. The image of the water bottle has become a cultural symbol of our never-ending fixation with simultaneously achieving instant gratification and “wellness.” We are concerned with our health, naturally. So we’ll seek out water that does “more” for us than just simply hydrate, but we’ll drink it out of plastic (albeit recyclable) bottles that, as Berlant and Novak mention on their podcast, have likely been baking in a hot delivery truck for thousands of miles before arriving at a grocery store. The idea that people who are privileged enough to be preoccupied with their health (read: the celebrities who become bottled water influencers) would be at the cutting edge feels particularly American as well. Meanwhile, there are over a billion people in the world who do not have access to clean water. Essentia’s loyal following, therefore, seems right in line with the American way—be the best! at the very top of your game!—perhaps, adding to its appeal.
“Improving people’s lives through better hydration” is another slogan pushed by the Essentia brand. You can hydrate yourself with regular water, but how do you better hydrate yourself? With ionized alkaline water, according to Essentia. And while you’re at it, why not tote around a chic bottle that’s also been in the hands of Sarah Paulson, Ramy Youssef, and every Kardashian on earth? “Everyone needs to stay hydrated,” Mechling admitted, “But not all waters are equal.”